It’s finally happening. Videos are cropping up now of hackers successfully running RetroArch on the Nintendo Switch. On older firmware, there is now a bootable homebrew solution that has not only led to retro emulation on the hybrid console (as well as stuff like DOOM) but has done so before Nintendo has offered an official alternative. This is definitely an issue; one that Nintendo should want to get ahead of as quickly as possible. As long as homebrew is not only accessible, but in offer of a service Nintendo has yet to deliver on, the Switch is in danger of suffering a similar fate to promising platforms like the PSP.
I want to preface this by stating that while I feel the PSP comparison is fitting, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m preaching doom and gloom for the Switch. The thing is selling all kinds of software with ludicrous numbers, so the PSP comparison is not 1:1. What I’m saying is it could be a similar situation, in which even more casual users actively seek out tools that may start with unique purposes like emulation, but inevitably opens the door for behaviors like current software piracy.
People like having options, and they like having them when they want them and as easily as they can get them. People like being in control of their hardware. This is why the PSP ended up the way it did. The initial PSP offerings were cool, but custom firmware hackers blew it wide open, even improving on services Sony offered officially like PS1 support, expanding the full potential of the platform (then opening the piracy floodgates). While piracy was not the sole reason the PSP ultimately floundered a bit (Sony making tons of boneheaded decisions was the big one), it definitely didn’t help, especially in being an easy direction for suits to point fingers.
With the Switch, retro software has become something of a given for Nintendo hardware. The Virtual Console, while not as popular or well-executed as possible, has been a mainstay since the Wii, and the people who use it generally like it for what it does. Being able to pay a few bucks to play old software has an inherent appeal to it, and the demand continues as evidenced by legacy software on other platforms. But for whatever reason(s), the Switch still doesn’t have any, save for things like Hamster’s prolific Arcade Archives series.
Nintendo has remained oddly quiet on the Virtual Console front, and a lot of that has to deal with the console’s upcoming online service. This new, paid subscription model has been delayed, but is supposedly bringing some sort of on-demand retro gaming along for the ride. That’s all we know, and now that the Switch is capable of running emulators, that’s not good (for Nintendo). As this is iterated on by the homebrew scene, it will only be easier and easier to run RetroArch (a popular emulation platform) and other similar homebrew software. If Nintendo is playing catchup to content that’s been made free, that could eventually lead to more hard firmware updates, anti-piracy measures or worst case scenario, platform abandonment by third parties convinced pirates have taken over.
This isn’t an anti-piracy screed; I’m actually generally in support of consoles not having overbearing restrictions, and homebrew development has a lot of benefits. My concern is that Nintendo was beaten to the punch on a service it has plans to roll out, and inevitably the comparisons will be made. And that draws attention to more people than normally pay attention to homebrew, which could have a snowball effect resulting in all kinds of consequences and bad faith decisions made by clueless corporate figures. Or, perhaps Nintendo’s emulation solution will line up with the rumors, add tons of value and this will be a moot point. The fun is in seeing it all unfold in real time.